Letter From Sundance

Spirit of '68, Animated & Kicking Off Sundance

Writer-director Brett Morgen at the film's premiere on Thursday.
Writer-director Brett Morgen at the film's premiere on Thursday. "It's time for us to step up," he says of generations since 1960s antiwar activists. (By Kevork Djansezian -- Associated Press)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 20, 2007

PARK CITY, Utah -- Wake up, kids, your ancestors were once smart-aleck, long-haired Yippies getting their pot heads bashed by baton-wielding Chicago police officers -- what gramps back in the day would call "the [dirty word, dirty word] fascist pigs" -- so unplug the PlayStation and to the barricades! That seems to be the call from the annual Sundance Film Festival, which opened with a nostalgic whiff of metaphorical tear gas in the air.

The first film in the 10-day event? "Chicago 10," a political documentary (don't stop reading, kids!) that tells the story of the rollicking protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in the summer of 1968, and the ensuing trial of eight antiwar agitators and their two attorneys for inciting riots -- and here's the good part:

It's a cartoon.

Not all of it, of course. Only about a third is motion-capture animation (think "Polar Express"). The filmmaker, Brett Morgen ("The Kid Stays in the Picture"), culled 180 hours of archival news and amateur film footage for the 103-minute movie, and there is plenty of real black-and-white action -- protesters dancing, marching, running, yelling and getting their skulls smacked. The heroes of the revo are in the film, too, the Yippie pranksters Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and the more earnest radicals like Tom Hayden and Black Panther Bobby Seale. But because the highly theatrical trial/circus of the troublemakers was not filmed or televised, all that exists is 28,000 pages of transcripts from the five-month case. Oh, behold the legal dark ages before O.J.!

So it is the trial that is animated, with the historical participants voiced by the actors Mark Ruffalo, Nick Nolte, Roy Scheider, Jeffrey Wright, Liev Schreiber and Hank Azaria, who usually is not impersonating Abbie Hoffman and Allen Ginsberg (ommmm) but Moe Szyslak and Apu Nahasapeemapetilon on "The Simpsons."

That "Chicago 10" kicked off Sundance illustrates where its organizers' heads are. Robert Redford, the festival founder, opened the show with a dig, telling the full house Thursday night that he and other Hollywood activists "put our voices on hold" following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for solidarity, and to "let the leaders lead." Redford, handsome as ever in jeans and a leather jacket (looking like he stepped out of the, say, Sundance Catalog), then fired away: "I think we're owed a big, massive apology," and the auditorium, filled with industry heavies, lit up with righteous applause, like, you capitalist dogs!

The filmmaker Morgen, who was born six weeks after the tumultuous Chicago convention, later explained that his aim was to entertain, sure, and also "to mobilize the youth in this country to stop the [bleeping] war." More right-on clapping.

On Friday, Morgen appeared at a Main Street cafe before his panel discussion, and as the hepcats sipped their foamy lats and a Neil Young anthem warbled in the background, we couldn't help but notice that the lounge was sponsored by . . . the Wall Street Journal, which last time we checked would have been considered the house organ for The Man.

Why? Why did Morgen, who sports black-frame nerd glasses and a long shag do, tackle this primer? The genesis, he says, was a conversation he had with Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair (house organ for Chanel, Ferragamo and L'Oreal). "Graydon said, 'Why isn't anybody out there protesting?' When he was 17 years old, the Chicago 8 were his heroes," says Morgen. "And I was like, let's do it, but let's not do it holier than thou, like, look how great your parents were and how lame you are. Let's find a youthful energy."

What Morgen was after, he says, was a film that captured the feeling of Chicago, what Hoffman nicely described then as "total theater with everyone an actor," hence the soundtrack includes music from the period (like Billy Preston) and from contemporary artists (like Eminem). Off with their heads, because there are no talking heads in "Chicago 10," though there is an eerie clip of Walter Cronkite describing then-Mayor Richard J. Daley's Chicago as "a police state."

Morgen lives in New York's Greenwich Village and often walks by Washington Square Park, where he says he sees the old hippies, with candles and antiwar signs, and he tells them, good for you, "it's too bad the kids aren't doing this. It's time for us to step up."

It is not easy getting Ashley and Jordan off the couch. Still, Morgen's hopeful. "If you don't dream," he says, "then you have nightmares." He thinks of the Chicago defendants as "modern-day Freudian heroes" and their story arcs as "American mythologies." And, yeah, the Chicago 8 and their two defense attorneys come off in the film as mostly inspiring characters -- and often really intentionally funny -- activists who spent their time, not in a cloud of dope smoke, but relentlessly strategizing, organizing, fundraising and speaking at a time when the government was calling up 35,000 Americans a month for the draft for a hopeless, unpopular war.

The film, which has not yet sold to a distributor, is backed by the new activist financiers of Hollywood, the companies Participant Productions and River Road Entertainment, which are led, respectively, by monied moguls Jeff Skoll (eBay billionaire) and Bill Pohlad (son of banking billionaire and Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad). Recall that the two were responsible for some of film culture's biggest recent head-turners, "Brokeback Mountain," "Syriana," "Good Night, and Good Luck" and Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth."

At an intimate gathering over wine and beef after "Chicago 10" premiered, both Skoll and Pohlad say they supported the project because they wanted to introduce today's younger generations to the great acts of their forebears -- and to do it more MTV than PBS.

The only Chicago defendant to make the show was Hayden, the former student organizer, former Jane Fonda husband, former California state senator and now a writer and professor. He says he greatly admired the movie and was amazed at how it captured the feeling of those times. Someone commented, "Abbie would have liked it." Hoffman, who as himself and as a cartoon character steals every scene he's in, died by apparent suicide in 1989. Hayden smiled and said, "Of course he would."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company